Civil union bill called vital for state

CARSON CITY -- Harrah's Entertainment is warning legislators that Nevada's tourism industry could lose the business of gays and lesbians if they fail to override Gov. Jim Gibbons' expected veto of a bill to allow couples to enter into domestic partnerships.

In a letter to lawmakers, Harrah's Senior Vice President Jan Jones said that Nevada must compete with other destinations for the growing gay and lesbian business and that there could be a "negative economic impact" if the bill does not become law.

"Our state cannot afford to lose any more revenue to other destinations because of a reputation as a place which is not socially or politically the right place to do business or to vacation," Jones stated in the letter, dated Tuesday.

Gays and lesbians have the highest disposable income of any segment of the population, according to Jones.

"Our company does aggressive marketing to this community," Jones said Wednesday. "How can we say to them 'we want your business, but we don't care about your rights.'"

A spokesman for a gay marketing organization said he couldn't offer evidence that the passage by Nevada voters of the Protection of Marriage Amendment in 2002 had affected tourism. The measure restricts marriage to heterosexual couples.

The spokesman questioned whether lawmakers wanted to risk alienating gays by opposing the domestic partnership measure, intended to give gay and unmarried straight couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples. The bill specifies that domestic partnerships, or civil unions, are not the same as marriages as defined in the Nevada Constitution.

"Las Vegas is the No. 2 gay destination in the country" after New York, said Thomas Brock of Community Marketing Inc. "It would be very dangerous for the state to send out a signal like that. If you don't want to take care of your own citizens, why should we support you?"

Boycotts of Hawaii, Utah and Colorado have grown out of rejection of legislation sought by gays.

Gibbons has vowed to veto SB283. Daniel Burns, his communications director, said Wednesday that the governor believes the bill is not necessary because any couple already can secure rights pertaining to wills, inheritance and hospital decisions, for instance, by executing private contracts.

"We don't see it as a gay or lesbian issue, but a legal issue," Burns said. "Everything in this bill you can do already."

Tom Nibbio, a spokesman for the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, said his organization is not considering boycotts of Nevada if the bill does not become law.

"We never boycott," Nibbio said in a phone interview. "We are a tourist organization, not a political organization."

Sen. David Parks, the sponsor of SB283, said the failure to pass the bill might induce people to choose other places to visit. The Las Vegas Democrat, who is openly gay, said he avoided going to Colorado in the 1990s when voters backed legislation denying rights for gays.

Amendments approved Tuesday specify that companies are not required to offer health care and other job-related benefits to the domestic partners of their employees.

During hearings, state Public Employees Benefits Program officials expressed concern that requiring companies to offer such benefits would cost $3 million to $5 million over the next two years.

Harrah's provides health care benefits to partners of its employees. It has won awards for being one of the "Best Places to Work for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Employees." Harrah's Las Vegas resorts include Caesars Palace, Bally's, Flamingo, Harrah's, Paris and the Rio.

Parks expects a vote to override the veto early next week. He believes he will secure the two-thirds vote of both houses needed to override it. The bill passed the Senate 12-9 and the Assembly 26-14, two votes short in each house of the number needed to override a veto.

Gary Peck, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed Harrah's move to induce legislators to override Gibbons' veto.

"This is not just a civil rights issue; it is an economic issue," Peck said. "The defeat of SB283 would send a terrible message to a segment of the community that we work hard to attract to our travel and tourism destinations."

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@ or 775-687-3901.